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NOTIONS: 'Hard to Say I'm Sorry,' but do it

May 22, 2006

Bruce Hetrick is off this week. In his absence, this column from April 10, 2000, is being reprinted.

A dozen years ago, my employer landed an intriguing client-the Archdiocese of Hartford, Conn. The assignment: Create some advertising that would lure lapsed Catholics back to the flock.

We did some research and found that many of these lost sheep blamed their wanderings on the church itself. And they weren't about to return without an apology.

So my friend the Jewish copywriter penned an ad headlined: "The Catholic Church Wants to Make a Confession." It was such an aberration, it generated news coverage in The New York Times, The Boston Globe and advertising trade publications nationwide.

Now, more than a decade after that lone archdiocese said it was sorry, Pope John Paul II has followed suit. Only his apology-for all the wrongs committed by the Church in the past 2000 years-was so rare it reverberated through naves and newsrooms worldwide.

While the pope was coming clean in Rome, New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani was scoring headlines of his own-not for apologizing, but for not apologizing. Giuliani wouldn't say he was sorry for the death of Patrick Dorismond, an African-American shot and killed by NYPD officers.

Giuliani got nearly as much bad press as the pope got good. Wherein lies a valuable lesson for business owners, managers and advisers.

There's an old song by the rock band Chicago (recently recut by R&B's AZ Yet) called, "Hard to Say I'm Sorry."

So true. But if you're in religion, politics or business, the S-word can go a long way toward saving or rebuilding a reputation endangered by misdeed.

As Brent Staples of The New York Times wrote a few weeks ago, "A simple apology is often the essence of leadership."

It's also the essence of getting anyone to hear anything else you have to say.

Some former colleagues of mine once developed ad campaigns for two Fortune 500 companies. Both wanted to say how much they'd improved their service and how wonderful they now were.

But when the initial concepts were tested, the clients' customers refused to believe them. That's because the companies' service had been so bad that their customers were blind to improvements-and frankly offended that the companies would dare to brag.

Both companies ran confession ads, instead. One showed an aviation product wrapped in red tape with the headline "Excuses just won't fly." Another featured an unlocked ball and chain and the headline, "Our reps no longer carry these parts."

After seeing such bold admissions of guilt, the customers were ready to hear about improvements. Sales jumped dramatically.

Here in Indianapolis, we've recently witnessed two clear-cut case studies on the art of apologizing.

Last summer, the Indiana Department of Health temporarily shut down Roselyn Bakeries, citing 41 sanitation violations. The company ducked the details of improvement efforts, declined early interview requests, refused to allow photographers to record the cleanup and then lied to consumers-saying Roselyn stores were closed for the July 4 holiday when everyone knew the real cause: rodent feces.

When Roselyn finally apologized, it was only for the inconvenience of closed stores-not for turning everyone's favorite sweets into water cooler humor.

Weeks later, a kiss-and-make-up offer of free cookies found 210,000 takers. But Roselyn couldn't buy forgiveness. The 56-year-old company closed for good Aug. 7, blaming the media as it fell.

Contrast that with Crystal Food Services. Hit with even more health violations than Roselyn, Crystal suspended operations at its Indiana State Fairgrounds concession stands, explained what it was doing to fix the problem and accepted responsibility-all in the first published story.

"It was an unfortunate incident," the company's president, Jack Bayt, told the Star. "It's obviously my responsibility." Then, even after the company passed muster with health inspectors, it declined to reopen the concession stands until its employees got additional training.

Bayt's confession, the cleanup and the commitment to do things right before reopening should help rebuild trust.

There's an adage in my business that "free" is the most powerful word in the English language. If that's so, the words "I'm sorry" are close behind.

If you or your business find yourself in troubled water, remember this: To err is human, to apologize divine.



Hetrick is president and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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